The average NFL career lasts less than four years, according to the NFL Players’ Association. Given the immense physicality of the game, and the year-round commitment required to compete for an NFL roster spot, countless players fall by the wayside not long after their careers begin.
However, the term “cast-off” connotes rejection, finality, and denial. Many NFL players have had promising starts to their respective careers, only to have injuries, underwhelming performances, or suspensions derail their dreams.
Still, “cast-off” doesn’t apply, at least in the traditional sense, to some players on this list. For instance, guys like Fred Jackson and Wes Welker, both of whom forged highly respectable careers in the NFL, were released in part because Father Time caught up with them.
One may think these setbacks would result in a player’s retirement. Yet, NFL players are stubborn athletes, and many hold out hope for a return to the gridiron. There are numerous free agent players, even some who have moved on down other career paths, who have yet to formally retire from the National Football League. Tim Tebow may play minor league baseball for the New York Mets, but he hasn’t called it quits on football just yet. Is that simply a formality at this point? What about Michael Vick, Trent Richardson, or JaMarcus Russell?
Here are 15 NFL cast-offs who haven’t officially retired.
15 Mario Manningham
New York Giants fans will always remember Manninham for his clutch performance in Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. His five-catch, 73-yard performance, capped off by an incredible toe-tap catch in double coverage, helped propel the G-men to their second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots in a five-year span.
However, for all his postseason heroics, Manningham could never emerge as the top-flight wide receiver fans and coaches hoped he could be.
Manningham left New York for San Francisco before the 2012 season, but suffered a season-ending ACL injury that December. He was never the same. He started just three games in 2013, catching nine passes and no touchdowns.
Manningham returned to the Giants in 2014, but sadly, never saw regular season action. He strained his calf during a preseason game, and was released in late September. Despite not playing a down in the regular season since 2013, Manningham has yet to formally announce his retirement. Perhaps he has one last comeback in him.
14 Brady Quinn
The seemingly-annual quarterback carousel in Cleveland is in full swing this season. Robert Griffin III returned to the field in Week 14 for the first time in months, yet failed to deliver a win for the Browns.
Had Brady Quinn panned out in Cleveland, perhaps the Browns’ fortunes might have turned a corner. However, the 2007 first-round pick struggled to stay healthy, and battled for consistent playing time. The former Notre Dame QB went 3-9 in 12 starts over three seasons in Cleveland.
The Browns traded Quinn to the Broncos in 2010, where he failed to claim the starting job from Kyle Orton. He last played for the Chiefs in 2012 before a concussion ended his season. Over the next two years, Quinn tried out for the Seahawks, Jets, Rams, and Dolphins. He never played a down for any of those teams.
Quinn signed on with Fox Sports as an in-game color commentator in 2014. Yet, he still participated in the 2015 NFL Veteran Combine, and hasn’t officially closed the door on his professional career.
13 Riley Cooper
It's hard to forget the 2013 video that captured Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a Garth Brooks concert. However, as searing as his language was, it didn't spell the end of his career. In fact, the wide receiver had a solid year in 2013, with 835 yards and eight touchdowns. However, his totals declined precipitously over the next two seasons. He averaged 577 and 327 yards in the 2014 and 2015, respectively. He found the end zone just five times in those two years.
The Eagles released Cooper in February 2016, after which the former fifth-round pick tweeted his thanks to the team and added "Onto the next chapter."
That next chapter hasn't come yet, and it remains to be seen whether the 29-year-old will ever play in the NFL again.
12 Matt Flynn
Flynn entered the NFL fresh off the high of a BCS National Championship with LSU in 2008. The Packers selected the 6-foot-2 quarterback with the 209th pick in that year’s draft.
Flynn served as Aaron Rodgers’ backup during his first of two stints in Green Bay. However, Flynn never truly found his groove. He signed with Seattle a few months later, where he spent one season, appeared in three games, and threw just nine total passes.
The Seahawks traded Flynn to Oakland in 2013, but the embattled quarterback was released in October. The Bills brought him in a week later, only to release him in November.
He made a return to Green Bay that very same month, as a backup to Scott Tolzien, who replaced the injured Rodgers. Flynn started four games 2013 and threw seven touchdowns.
Flynn bounced between the Patriots, Jets, and Saints in 2015 after the Packers chose not to re-sign him. He didn’t play a single game that year, and remained unsigned throughout all of 2016.
The 32-year-old could provide a veteran backup presence on a young team, but the longer he goes without taking a snap, the less likely that possibility seems.
11 Fred Jackson
Fred Jackson isn’t a “cast-off” in the typical sense of the word. The former Buffalo running back played nine productive seasons with the Bills, and became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in the process. Jackson, at age 35, is in the twilight of his career, and fans wouldn’t blame him if he did indeed retire. He is only a “cast-off” in the sense that football is a young man’s game, and Jackson no longer fits that bill.
However, despite going unsigned in 2016, Jackson still wishes to continue his career. He spent the 2015 season as a pass-catching specialist for the Seahawks, catching 32 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. It remains to be seen whether Jackson will hang up his cleats for good once the 2016 season ends, but either way, Jackson enjoyed a respectable career as one of the premier running backs of the last decade.
10 Tavaris Jackson
Jackson spent 10 years in the NFL, mostly as a backup. The 2006 second-round pick began his career in Minnesota before a 2011 signing with the Seattle Seahawks. He started 15 games for the Seahawks during the 2011 season, but was traded to the Bills the following year after Russell Wilson's rise.
Jackson didn't start a single game in 2012, and returned to Seattle in a backup role for the final three seasons of his career. The Seahawks chose not to re-sign Jackson after the 2015 season, and the 33-year-old quarterback has struggled to find work since. In June, he was charged with aggravated assault after allegedly pulling a gun on his wife. In court documents, he claimed to have no income, nor any savings, despite his $1.5 million salary in 2015.
A Florida judge decided not to move forward in the case, and Jackson remains hopeful of signing on with another NFL team.
9 Montee Ball
Ball may be just 26 years old, but he hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2014. His recent legal troubles, including a 60-day jail sentence for a domestic violence conviction in August 2016, won’t do his dreams of an NFL comeback any favors.
The Denver Broncos originally drafted the former Wisconsin All-Big Ten running back in the second round in 2013. Ball had a decent rookie season, rushing for 559 yards and four touchdowns in 16 games. However, his production plummeted the following season, to the tune of 172 yards and one touchdown. Denver waived Ball in September 2015. He soon signed with the Patriots’ practice squad, but never earned a call-up to the big club. He was released at season’s end.
In addition to his domestic violence conviction, Ball faces supplementary charges of bail jumping and resisting arrest. If convicted, he could face months of additional jail time.
Surprisingly, these legal woes haven’t deterred Ball’s hopes of an NFL return, even as he remains a free agent.
8 Trent Richardson
Richardson arrived in the NFL with much fanfare after a prolific three-year run with the Alabama Crimson Tide. During his time in Tuscaloosa, Richardson won two BCS National Championships, earned 2011 SEC Player of the Year honors, and finished third in the 2012 Heisman vote.
Richardson joined the Cleveland Browns as the team’s first-round pick (third overall) that year. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry and rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie year. However, after a sudden trade to the Indianapolis Colts in September 2013, Richardson’s career took an irreparable hit.
He started just 20 games over the next two seasons. He scored seven total touchdowns in that span. The Colts waived Richardson in March 2015.
A persistent knee injury ended Richardson’s latest comeback attempt with the Ravens in August 2016. Richardson discussed his future with ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley shortly thereafter.
“People got to understand I'm not giving up,” he said. “I wish I was on the field. I'm not giving up. I'm not going to let it discourage me."
At 26, Richardson is still young enough to resurrect his career, but that revival depends on the health of his ailing knee.
7 Wes Welker
Wes Welker hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since 2014, despite playing eight games for the Rams during the 2015 season. The four-time Pro Bowler enjoyed his best years as one of Tom Brady’s main targets in New England. Welker’s five-year run with Brady included five straight 100-plus reception seasons, including three straight 110-plus reception seasons from 2007-2009. In all, 34 of Welker’s 50 career touchdown receptions came from Brady.
Given those accomplishments, Welker certainly shouldn’t be considered a “cast-off” in the traditional sense of the word. However, with his recent history of concussions, and declining on-field performance, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Welker might hang up his jersey soon.
The 35-year-old wide receiver remained non-committal on his NFL future when he told “NFL Total Access” in May 2016: “There are some days I wake up and I'm like 'OK, I'm done,’ and other days I wake up and I'm like, 'Oh, maybe one more year.'”
Welker may have more football left in the tank, but he needs to return to the field sooner rather than later.
6 Albert Haynesworth
Albert Haynesworth was widely regarded as the best defensive tackle in the NFL when he signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins in February 2009. Haynesworth was fresh off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in Tennessee and arrived in Washington with much excitement and anticipation. However, Haynesworth failed to meet expectations while in D.C. He spent less than two seasons with the Redskins before a 2011 trade to the Patriots. The team placed the beleaguered tackle on waivers, where he was claimed by Tampa Bay. He was released in February of 2012, and hasn’t played a down since.
However, despite his absence from the NFL for almost four years, and a slew of legal troubles, Haynesworth hasn't formally announced his retirement. In 2015, he took to ThePlayersTribune.com to pen a letter to his younger self. In it, he admitted he "(lost his) passion" for football when he signed his $100 million contract in 2009. He made reference to "retirement" in his letter, but never officially announced it.
“Do not leave the Tennessee Titans," he wrote. Haynesworth may have the benefit of hindsight, but it doesn't undo the disappointing end to his career.
5 Michael Vick
To say Michael Vick’s NFL career has had its ups and downs would be a drastic understatement. From the highs of being taken first overall in 2001 and guiding the resurgent Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs, to the lows of serving time in prison for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring, Vick has seen it all. Vick made a successful comeback attempt with the Eagles in 2009, and was named the 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year after a 3,000-yard, 21-touchdown season.
However, Vick went 8-14 from 2013-2015, and hasn’t played at all in 2016. The 36-year-old quarterback remained optimistic about playing one more season, but acknowledged that time is running out.
“I haven’t officially retired, “ Vick told NJ.com back in March. “I still feel like I could play and there is a lot left in the tank."
Vick might not get that chance, given that the 2016 season is at its end. "Playing another year is very important just for my psyche,” he continued. “Just to get it out of my system, to go out with a bang.”
4 Tim Tebow
Forget Colin Kaepernick. Tim Tebow was the first quarterback associated with kneeling. Yet, rather than kneel in protest, Tebow knelt in prayer. The gesture, informally known as “Tebowing” became a staple of every touchdown celebration for the Florida Gators quarterback. He had a lot of them while at Florida, 145 to be exact. Yet, despite winning two National Championships, the 2007 Heisman Winner didn’t enjoy the same success on the NFL level.
Tebow led the Denver Broncos to a 7-4 record as a rookie starter, including an unforgettable playoff win over the Steelers in the 2011 Wild Card round.
Of course, Denver’s signing of Peyton Manning in 2012 spelled the end for Tebow in the Mile High City, and he was traded to the Jets. He was released in 2013 after just two starts. After failed tryouts with the Patriots and Eagles, Tebow signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets in September 2016.
So if he’s now a baseball player, why hasn’t he retired from football? Perhaps he still hopes for another shot in the NFL someday.
3 Terrell Owens
Admit it, there's still a small part of you that wants to see TO take an NFL field. Owens played his last snap in a regular season game back in 2010 for the Cincinnati Bengals. Following a torn ACL the following offseason, no NFL team chose to sign him. Since then, Owens has taken up modelling and has desperately tried to stay in the game of football. He played for the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League for the 2012 season, but was released for showing a lack of effort and commitment.
Since then, TO has gotten one sniff of the NFL, as the Seahawks invited him to training camp in 2012. They would release him just 20 days later. Since then, he has kept himself in tremendous shape and has continuously said he hasn't retired yet, despite being 43. In fact, just last month, Owens said he was available to help the struggling Philadelphia Eagles offense.
— Terrell Owens (@terrellowens) October 31, 2016
2 JaMarcus Russell
JaMarcus Russell, widely regarded as one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history, went 7-18 in 25 games under center in Oakland. It’s safe to say those totals weren’t close to what the Raiders hoped for when the team selected the LSU quarterback first overall in 2007. The team released Russell in May of 2010 after just three seasons. He joined the Redskins and Dolphins in November of 2010 in hopes of landing a backup role, but failed to make enough of an impression with either team to sign a deal. Notable career stats include a mediocre 18–23 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 65.2 passer rating, and 15 lost fumbles.
Since leaving Oakland, Russell made a few unsuccessful comeback attempts, including a summer 2013 tryout with the Chicago Bears.
After staying silent for nearly three years, Russell resurfaced in 2016. However, it wasn’t to formally announce his retirement from football. Instead, it was to write a letter to all 32 NFL teams, offering to play one year for free. Not one team responded. Russell hasn’t taken an NFL snap in nearly seven years, leaving one to wonder how long he will keep his NFL dreams alive.
1 Ray Rice
Perhaps no NFL player embodies “cast-off” better than Ray Rice. The 5-foot-9 running back excelled in Baltimore, racking up four-straight 1,100-plus yard, 60-plus reception seasons from 2009-2012, capped off with a Super Bowl in February 2013.
We all know what happened from there. After an injury-plagued 2013 season, Rice found himself at the center of one of the most explosive stories in recent NFL history. Rice was charged with third-degree aggravated assault after striking his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer, in an elevator at an Atlantic City Casino in February 2014.
League commissioner Roger Goodell slapped Rice with a meager two-game suspension, inciting outrage from fans and critics alike. It wasn’t until elevator surveillance footage surfaced in September that the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely, and the Ravens cut their ties with him.
In the years since, Rice has worked tirelessly to improve his image by working with domestic violence prevention organizations, and offering to donate all of his 2016 salary to such groups if an NFL team signed him.
However, teams remain hesitant to sign Rice given the public relations backlash that could result. At 29, Rice isn’t getting any younger, and may realize his second chance in the NFL might never come.